A SHARP rise in the number of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli undercover military units this year has sparked fears among Palestinian leaders that the Army is deliberately killing grass-roots activists in the occupied territories, without seriously trying to arrest them.
"The Army has adopted a policy of seeking out activists, hunting them down, and executing them," Faisal al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian advisory team at the Middle East peace talks, claimed recently.
Eight people were killed in the first two months of this year by special Israeli squads dressed in plain clothes or a variety of disguises, and at least another eight were killed by them in March, according to the Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC). This compares with 29 such deaths in all of 1991.
The Army fiercely denies charges that it is operating "death squads," though it acknowledges that its use of undercover units is on the rise.
"It is at best hypocrisy and at worst a lie to say that more Palestinians are being killed because of these special squads," Army spokesman Moshe Fogel insists. "We are dealing with more violent armed groups, and as a result, there is a rise in the number of people being killed," he says, pointing to 32 shooting incidents in the occupied territories last month, an unprecedently high figure.
Two recent special-squad operations, however, suggest that the undercover units sometimes use maximum force even when they face no resistance.
Late on the night of March 29, an Irish volunteer nurse, Aylish Jones, and her husband, Philip, were walking home from a dinner party in Hebron when they say they saw a blue transit van with West Bank license plates negotiate a makeshift roadblock of burning tires and rubbish skips before pulling up 70 yards away.
A young man, his face masked by a black and white keffiyeh - the traditional Palestinian headdress - then ran past them toward the van.
"He came up around the side [of the van] to the driver's window and hesitated for a moment. Then he ran across the front of the van to a shady patch," recalls Aylish Jones. "And as he was running, he was shot down" without warning. "At the same time, the doors at the back of the van flew open, and a lot of men dressed in Palestinian women's dresses got out and there was shooting all around."
The Army claims that Issam Gheit, the victim, had smashed the van's windshield and tried to attack the driver before being shot. But both Philip and Aylish Jones say the windshield was intact when they approached the scene immediately afterward, and that the youth had nothing in his hands when he ran by them. (Mr. Gheit survived the incident.) Soccer match incident
A week earlier, an undercover unit had been even more brazen, during an afternoon soccer match at Tulkarem, being watched by a dozen or so spectators, witnesses claim. Four men dressed as Palestinian youths, who had been watching the game for a few minutes, approached Jamal Rashid as he was taking a corner kick, according to his fellow players.
Eyewitnesses say one of the four shouted his name and another began firing an automatic pistol in the air simultaneously as they rushed at Rashid across the field, and then shot him almost immediately, as he hesitated.
Army spokesman Mr. Fogel says Rashid was running away, and that "only when he did not stop and was on the verge of escaping did [the special unit] shoot at him to try to stop him. Unfortunately ... he died."
Rashid had taken only a few steps when he was shot, however, and his only escape route was blocked by a uniformed Army patrol hiding in a nearby orchard, his fellow players say.
"If they had wanted to arrest him, they would have shot him in the legs," says Muhammad, a fellow player. "But we didn't find one bullet in his legs. They did not shoot to arrest him."
The father of another player, Nabil, who is wanted by the Israeli authorities, said April 9 he had been called to the local military's governor office and shown a picture of Rashid's body. He said the governor told him, " 'Tell your son that if he does not want the same fate as Jamal he should surrender to us.' He asked me whether I preferred Nabil dead or spending a year or two in prison."
The Army is thought to have formed its first undercover units soon after the intifadah (uprising) began in December 1987, but only revealed their existence in a TV program nine months ago. Often dressing as Palestinian youths, sometimes as women, and occasionally posing as religious Muslims, according to human rights groups, the squads are used against specific targets. Deaths on rise
The number of deaths at their hands has risen as they have increased their operations, Army sources acknowledge. "We have tried to expand their use," says a military source. "When we an [last year] that we would step up the Army presence in the territories we said that you would not necessarily notice an increase in uniformed soldiers. We were talking about the special squads."
The units are more active, the source adds, "because we can pinpoint the target. The intifadah has changed; we are no longer dealing with mass demonstrations, but with individual terror squads."
The increased number of killings also coincides with February's "clarifications" on open fire regulations for the undercover units. The Army has not published these "clarifications," saying only that they deal with life-threatening situations. Human rights activists, however, say the new regulations appear to relax the conditions for use of live fire.
Fogel insists, however, that "Israeli soldiers receive very strict and very direct orders regarding wanted persons in the territories. The orders are to bring them to trial so that they have their day in court. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, this is exactly what happens.
"Of the hundreds of cases in which special squads are involved, in almost 99 percent... there is no shooting, and they do not injure anyone," he adds. Collaborator killers
Nonetheless, the squads have killed at least 16 people this year, points out Anita Vitullo of PHRIC, most of them "people who were popular heroes, who were known to be armed, although they may not have been armed at the time of their killing, who were suspected of participating in the killing of collaborators."
By killing them, often in very public places, Ms. Vitullo argues, the Army hopes "to teach [Palestinians] that they are vulnerable. The target is not only the people they may kill or wound. The target is much larger," she says. "The target is the community."